8 Dec 2016

2016 Red List: great news for island endemics, disaster for cagebirds

A bird seller in Yogyakarta, Java. © Peter Nijenhuis / Flickr
By Alex Dale

This article was first published in The Red List Issue of BirdLife The Magazine. Subscribe now to support our work and receive the latest conservation breakthroughs.

This year’s IUCN Red List update delivers a chilling warning about the plight faced by some of the world’s most popular cagebirds, with many much-loved species now being trapped and traded into near-extinction in the wild.

The most iconic species to be uplisted to a higher threat category is the Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus, which goes from Vulnerable to Endangered. An intelligent, charismatic bird and an excellent mimic of the human voice, the Grey Parrot is one of the most popular avian pets in North America, Europe and the Middle-East. It is such a common sight in pet stores across the world that many will be surprised to learn that the bird is now in danger of extinction.

But it is precisely the Grey Parrot’s popularity as a pet that has put it in peril; every year, thousands of wild-caught Greys are plucked from Africa’s rainforests. As a result of these unsustainable harvests, in some parts of the continent, the bird is nearly extinct. A recent study in Ghana, which replicated roost counts performed in 1992, discovered that Grey populations in the country had declined by over 90% in that time, and perhaps by as much as 99%.

The situation is even more acute in Asia, with 19 species being uplisted to a higher threat category, including six to Critically Endangered, the last stop before extinction. These species are Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush Garrulax rufifrons, Javan Pied Starling Gracupica jalla, Black-winged Myna Acridotheres melanopterus, Grey-backed Myna Acridotheres tricolor, Grey-rumped Myna Acridotheres tertius and Nias Hill Myna Gracula robusta. All these species are in danger of disappearing within our lifetimes.

All these species are endemic to Indonesia, and while deforestation is a factor, the main driver of their decline is the local bird trade. This is largely centred around Java, Sumatra and Borneo, where keeping songbirds is an integral part of local culture.

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Azores Bullfinch © Pedro Monteiro

However, the 2016 Red List also delivered some encouraging news from far-flung islands all across the globe.

Birds confined to just a single island or archipelago are some of the most at-risk species in the world, not only because their range is so small, but because they are often ill-equipped to face the threats of predators such as cats and rats when they are introduced to the island. For this reason, a big percentage of existing avian extinctions are island endemics.

However, a deluge of downlistings in this year’s Red List shows that conservation work can help struggling island populations to rebound. Examples include:

The Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina, which is threatened by the encroachment of invasive plants on its preferred laurel forest habitat, was once Europe’s rarest passerine, with maybe just 300 birds remaining on the Azores in the 70s and 80s. However, extensive habitat restoration efforts over the past decade have seen the islands’ populations triple, and the species has now been downlisted for the second time in under a decade; from Endangered to Vulnerable.

The Monserrat Oriole Icterus oberi, which was almost wiped out in the wake of the volcanic eruptions that destroyed villages and forests alike on the island in 1995, has been downlisted from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable, with populations gradually bouncing back under close surveillance from the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK).

The St Helena Plover Charadrius sanctaehelenae, has also been downlisted from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable. This small wader is the only remaining species of the nine endemic landbirds that were once found on this remote South Atlantic island. Introduced predators and habitat loss caused by development and the construction of an (unused) airport threatened to doom the St Helena Plover to go the same way as its peers. However, habitat restoration projects are having a postitve result on St Helena Plover populations, as evidenced by its downlisting this year.



Meet the Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch – Europe’s newest, and rarest, finch (©Miguel Angel Peña Estévez


As the Red List Authority for birds, BirdLife International also completed the second part of a two-part comprehensive taxonomic review of birds. This year’s update focussed on passerine birds – or  'perching birds' such as flycatchers, thrushes, crows and finches – and has led to the recognition of 742 new species, many of which were previously treated as subspecies of other species. The new total of 6,649 passerines implies that worldwide birddiversity at the species level was previously underestimated by more than 10%. As a result, the number of recognised bird species worldwide passes the 11,000 mark for the first time, to 11,121. Of these, 10,960 are extant, and a further five still exist today but are considered extinct in the wild.

Of the new species assessed, 11% are threatened. For example, the recently described Antioquia wren (Thryophilus sernai) of Colombia has been listed as Endangered as more than half of its habitat could be wiped out by a single planned dam construction. Habitat loss to agriculture and degradation by invasive plants have also pushed the striking Comoro Blue Vanga (Cyanolanius comorensis) into the Endangered category.

Thirteen of the newly recognised bird species enter the IUCN Red List as Extinct. Several of these have been lost within the past 50 years – such as the Pagan reed-warbler (Acrocephalus yamashinae) of Guam, and the O’ahu akepa (Loxops wolstenholmei) and Laysan honeycreeper (Himatione fraithii), both formerly of Hawaii. All of these species were endemic to islands, and were most likely wiped out by invasive species.

Unfortunately, recognising more than 700 ‘new’ species does not mean that the world's birds are faring better,” says Dr Ian Burfield, BirdLife’s Global Science Coordinator. “As our knowledge deepens, so our concerns are confirmed: unsustainable agriculture, logging, invasive species and other threats – such as the illegal trade highlighted here – are still driving many species towards extinction." 

In the coming weeks, the BirdLife website will publish a series of articles which take a wider look at the biggest success stories and concerns to come from this year’s Red List. For an even more in-depth look, the Red List Special Edition of our magazine is available now.



The new factsheets for all 11,121 bird species assessed in the 2016 Red List update can be found at http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/search. For an Excel spreadsheet containing the complete 2016 checklist, and another listing all the changes since 2015, please visit http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/taxonomy and download the zip file. 

BirdLife International’s Red List Assessments are sponsored by Zeiss and supported by the Tasso Leventis Foundation, to whom we are very grateful. Thanks also to the A. G. Leventis Foundation for supporting our taxonomic work that underpins the Red List.